Marxist thinking and Newtonian parallels
Jack Conrad continues his defence of dialectical and historical materialism
Bourgeois ideologues and their masters are instinctively hostile to the dialectic: that is, the materialist dialectic of Marxism, of course. After all, the Marxist dialectic demands a critical analysis of existing society as it really is, stresses universal interconnection, admits contingency, recognises the transient nature of everything and positively expects a revolutionary leap to general freedom. Dialektike being the ancient Greek word given to the many-sided and dynamic pattern long observed in nature, history and thought by a whole range of outstanding minds, but culminating in pre-Marxist form in the objectivist idealism of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831).
True, in their way a few establishment intellectuals are still committed to Hegelian dialectics. Especially given the collapse of bureaucratic socialism in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe and the subsequent colour revolutions, that includes dabbling with qualitative leaps. Here in Britain 1688 is held up as the model. But what does it amount to? Popular mobilisations encouraged, staffed and canalled in the interests of an exploiting minority. Surveying the world post-1991, it is, though, hardly surprising that there has been cock-a-hoop capitalist triumphalism. Francis Fukuyama shot to fame with his claim that the liberal market system constituted Hegel’s “end point of mankind’s ideological evolution” and the “final form of human government” (F Fukuyama The end of history and the last man London 1992, pxi).
Before him there were the likes of Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) and Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975). More recently Fernand Braudel, Robert Bonnaud, Paul Kennedy, Andre Gunder Frank and David Christian can be mentioned in this context too. Writers of universal history. One does not have to agree with them, and I do not. Yet, whatever the criticisms, they are undoubtedly far more profound and worthwhile than Fukuyama. Whereas he is loudly, aggressively, childishly upbeat, they soberly grapple with portents and processes of deep-seated structural western/British/US decline.
The neoconservatives’ disastrous ‘war on terror’ and George Bush’s Iraq quagmire sent Fukuyama crashing into the buffers of disappointment. To his credit he had the guts to admit it - while remaining doggedly committed to capitalism and staunchly anti-communist. Damningly he likens the neocon Middle East project to the Bolsheviks’ “imposing” Leninism in his latest book.1 A double-edged assesment. His, though, is the universal fate of optimistic bourgeois universalism: ie, protestant christianity, western civilisation, social democracy or Anglo-Saxon capitalism as the end of history proves illusory. A fate that befell giants such as Georg Hegel and Immanuel Kant … and in comparative terms minnows from Adam Smith to Milton Friedman, from Auguste Comte to Tony Giddens, from Leopold von Ranke to HG Wells.
Each turn of the historic screw confounds bourgeois optimism. Liberty of property in the 18th century inexorably leads to the general expropriation of the immediate producers; accumulation of capital to the rise of the militant working class; world economy to antagonistic nationalisms; Europe’s civilising mission to parasitic imperialism; Herbert Spencer to zoological racism; World War I to the 1917 Bolshevik revolution; preservation of the British empire to the 1929 crash; League of Nations to a new drive to violently redivide the world. Characteristic literary expression is found in disillusion, introspection and dystopianism: DH Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Franz Kafka, TS Eliot. Progress is called into question. Technological development is equated with abandoning the elemental human spirit.
Fascism, loss of political control by the controllers, Nazi industrialised genocide and World War II did nothing to bolster bourgeois optimism. During the 1950s and 60s there was a naive belief in what science and nationalised property forms would bring. Stalin, then Khrushchev, won a degree of support abroad as a result. Five-year plans plus automation were said to equal rapid economic development and eventually an undreamt cornucopia of plenty. Despite the mimicry of Keynesianism and social democracy, in the imperialist centres pessimism continues to grow. The McCarthyite cold war system and Sputnik, decolonisation and the non-aligned movement, the nuclear arms race and Vietnam, the unsustainability of the gold standard and the end of the long boom - one after the other they add to the darkening mood.
Under these inauspicious circumstances the bourgeoisie tries to recover a sense of confidence by promoting to the front rank intellectuals such as Raymond Aron, Isaiah Berlin, Fredrick Hayek and Karl Popper. Such second-ratism inevitably comes at a high price. Relativism, inconsistency and a retreat from historical thinking. Historicism and historical materialism become cursed words. Dismissed as akin to ‘Old Testament’ prophesying. Hocus pocus.
Yet the human-made historic process remorselessly continues. The end of the cold war and the death agony of social democracy, financialisation and the ever expanding chasm between super-rich and poor, China as the sweatshop of the world and the risk of the “mother of all meltdowns” in the US,2 political islam and the ‘war on terror’, accumulation for the sake of accumulation and the looming prospect of runaway climate change - all this testifies to a system in terminal decline. An increasingly discredited global system stacking up more and more contradictions and fast approaching absolute limits.
Bourgeois ideologues invent new excuse upon new excuse, as disappointment follows each supposed triumph. You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. Lies and half-truths produce diminishing returns. Hence hedonism, celebrity-worship, cynicism, credulity, conspiracy theories, alternative religions and electoral abstention. There has been an associated loss of nerve amongst our rulers and their preferred representatives. Afraid to admit the temporary nature of existing social relations, afraid to upset markets, afraid at loss of moral authority, afraid to bank on conscious human agency, the bourgeoisie is more and more reduced to half measures, empty gestures, authoritarian state control, pseudo-science and the search for scapegoats. Short-termism becomes ever more short-termist.
High street bookshops, learned journals, popular magazines are stuffed full of history as never before. There is even a history channel on TV. Content generally ranges from the mediocre to the downright awful, though occasional gems are still to be found. But there is a dramatic, widespread and unmistakable collapse in establishment historical thinking. Theorised universalism. Compared with the late 18th and early 19th centuries, preserving and therefore justifying the status quo is now the overriding concern. Hence the reflex dismissal of the Marxist dialectic, the crude apologetics, lack of courage and paucity of forward vision. After all, what stares back at them, if they dare look into the future, is the demise of capitalist society.
Instead, within a carefully constructed, well financed ideological framework, the emphasis is on tradition, nostalgia, genetic predestination, fragmentation, identity politics, the impossibility of rational planning, the inherent dangers of class war and the need to avoid any further crazy experiments in abolishing the market (not that Marxism denies the role of tradition, biology, etc, let alone the market under capitalism). Diehard Toryism thereby meets academic postmodernism.
What passes for bourgeois theory nowadays can be gathered from, on the one hand, the impoverished and nakedly apologetic historicism of Fukuyama, Niall Ferguson and Samuel P Huntington and, on the other hand, the anti-historicist philosophy of Karl Popper. Popperism purportedly stands for slow, carefully controlled social engineering, liberal democracy and hard science. In fact, Popperism too amounts to impoverished and naked apologetics.
Democracy is drained of any real class content, concrete history is replaced with a lifeless abstraction, religion is justified, capitalism normalised, objective reality denied and attacks on Marxism are turned into a brittle schema - because it does not conform to the methods and norms of physics, Marxism is automatically deemed anti-scientific (an argument I explored in Weekly Worker December 6 2007). No wonder his knighthood.
Inevitably, the Popperian paradigm effects sections of the left. Why? Simply because it is part of the ruling paradigm (though inherited from the 1930s, it remains standing today). Popperism, and along with it the whole system of positivism, is backed not only by the power of the state and the power of big money, but an even greater power: ie, what passes for ‘common sense’. Even if people have never heard of Karl Raimund Popper, some of his key ideas lie deeply lodged in their heads.
Those on the left who are despondent, tired, feel defeated or simply want a quiet life; those whose ‘latest scientific thinking’ is in fact superficial; those who crave easy popularity; those who uncritically embrace trade union politics; those whose reformist loyalty to the existing state merges them with liberalism - to one degree or another this whole spectrum (and despite the quantitatively small size of the left in the Anglo-Saxon world it is a very wide spectrum intellectually) is inclined to consciously adopt or unconsciously absorb the basic propositions of what is in fact a thorough-going bourgeois ideology.
The sorry results can be seen in ‘analytical Marxism’ and its subsequent ignominious and total collapse. However, the rot goes wider. Eg, writing in this paper, Rosa Lichtenstein - a member of the Socialist Workers Party till the early 1990s, she still describes herself as an SWP supporter - explained why dialectical materialism ought to be comprehensively rejected.3 Comrade Lichtenstein - and that is a form of address I am readily prepared to grant her because she appears to be a sincere socialist - must have put in an inordinate number of hours constructing her website; a website where she fully elaborates her argument. Each and every page purportedly deals the death blow to the dialectic and therefore dialectical materialism.4 At the time of writing she has (or has given herself?) a concluding damning mention on the Wikipedia website devoted to dialectical materialism.5
Despite such grandiose claims, there is nothing much original in Lichtenstein’s argument. Nonetheless, a reply is worthwhile. Repeated claims that she shoots down dialectical materialism in flames are sadly laughable. Yet precisely because the standard tropes of bourgeois academia are faithfully, unmistakably, echoed, that gives her labours a certain use-value.
She adopts, or claims to adopt, the method of Gottlob Frege (1848-1925), Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), Karl Popper (1902-1994), etc. Yet, compared with these professional philosophers/apologists, she proceeds without studied guile, without deliberate obfuscation and therefore in a relatively straightforward fashion. Welcome for two main reasons.
First, and most importantly, Marxism is definitionally a mass-based project. So-called ordinary folk are quite capable of judging complex questions: as long as they educate themselves and matters are explained and discussed in a manner designed to illuminate, not obscure. Without that being so - that is, without that cultural goal being realistically obtainable - Marxism would be invalid. If only religious elites, blue-blooded aristocrats, Confucian bureaucrats, scientific experts, red professors, senior lawyers, professional politicians, etc can think through and therefore rationally decide upon the big issues of the day, then republican democracy, socialism and communism are nothing but unobtainable dreams. Hence, comrade Lichtenstein is something of a gift for any self-respecting Marxist. Answering her allows us to answer positivism and thus the ruling class in a readily understood manner.
Second, following the comrade into the minefields of physics, chemistry and biology, I proceed admittedly as a rank amateur. But in a world of ever increased nano-specialisation who does not? Nevertheless, this, and my other similar recent articles, is just as much about self-improvement as polemic. I am educating myself as a fighter for republican democracy, socialism and communism. Anyway, while challenging what I believe are fundamental methodological mistakes, I shall confine myself to what are elementary facts. That, for the moment at least, is all that I am capable of fielding.
A necessary digression. For her own peculiar reasons comrade Lichtenstein claims to “fully accept” historical materialism. As if Marxist historic thinking is not founded on, bound up with and constantly stimulated by the dialectic. Eg, in the ‘Afterword’ to the second German edition of Capital volume one, Marx took some obvious delight in declaring himself a “pupil of that mighty thinker”, Hegel, and therefore a committed practitioner of the dialectic.
Why the pleasure? Hegel and the Hegelian dialectic had become deeply unfashionable, problematic and dangerous in Germany. Conservatism was on the offensive and that could not but affect the middle classes and workers’ movement too. In his ‘Afterword’ Marx deliberately sought to offend, to upset, to outrage enemies, opponents and false friends alike: in the Hohenzollern establishment, in the Prussian-German liberal intelligentsia and in the sentimental, opportunist and economistic left. As a political hard, Marx doubtless got emotional gratification from declaring himself for Hegel in front of these philistines. It was like waving the proverbial red rag to a bull. There was cold calculation too. In direct proportion to the openly expressed offence, upset and outrage of enemies and opponents that brought recognition and therefore growing influence for the Marx-Engels party.
Let me quote a tad more from the above-mentioned ‘Afterword’, so the reader can get more of the flavour of Marx’s pugilistic style and at the same time appreciate his undying intellectual commitment to the dialectic.
In its rational form the dialectic is “a scandal and abomination to bourgeoisdom and its doctrinaire professors,” he provocatively writes. Why? The dialectic includes “within its comprehension and affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up; because it regards every historically developed social form as in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence; because it lets nothing impose upon it, and is in its essence critical and revolutionary”.6
Capital is presented in such a way - Marx having thoroughly studied the literature concerning capitalism, analysed its forms of development and traced out inner connections - that the completed volume one almost appeared to be “a mere a priori [ie, dialectical - JC] construction”.7 Still the cause of endless confusion amongst sympathetic critics and loyal partisans alike. Eg, on the one hand, the left Keynesian Joan Robinson (1903-83) considered Capital had been weakened by “Hegelian stuff and nonsense”.8 On the other hand, the Hegelian-Marxist, Tony Smith, argues with glowing approval that Marx’s logic closely resembles - basically corresponds to - that of Hegel.9
The fact of the matter is that Marx’s great work logically develops, starting with atomic essentials, as an ever more complex dialectical movement. But - and this is crucial - it does so by following and constantly referencing capital’s actual historic movement stage by stage. Marx, unlike Hegel, does not impose the dialectic onto reality. Instead, he draws out the dialectic through the long, hard work of discovery. However, precisely because of his subsequent dialectical method of presentation Marx can do so in a way that makes it easy for any intelligent reader to grasp, enjoy ... and use.
End of digression.
Comrade Lichtenstein mainly uses her Weekly Worker article to highlight criticisms of Engels’ three most general dialectical laws listed in Dialectics of nature. One, the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa; two, the interpenetration of opposites; three, the negation of the negation. Her website deals with these three laws and much else besides … at great length (I know, having taken the time out to look it over).
Engels is quoted saying: “… qualitative changes can only occur by the quantitative addition or subtraction of matter or motion (so-called energy) ... Hence it is impossible to alter the quality of a body without addition or subtraction of matter or motion: ie, without quantitative alteration of the body concerned.”10
She introduces another Marxist authority, Georgi Plekhanov (1856-1918). Such quantity-to-quality changes, are according to Plekhanov, neither smooth nor gradual: “[Q]uantitative changes, accumulating gradually, lead in the end to changes of quality, and that these changes of quality represent leaps, interruptions in gradualness … That is how all nature acts.”11
Lichtenstein tut-tuts. There are “many things in nature that do not undergo smooth, qualitative change”. Melting metal, glass, plastic, butter, toffee and chocolate are given as examples - though she concedes that “some things change ‘nodally’”. However, because of these so-called exceptions, she concludes that the ‘nodal’ aspect of Engels must be “defective”.12
“Unfortunately” - yes, it is announced as if with a heavy heart - “this implies that it cannot be used to argue that the transformation from capitalism to socialism must be nodal too, for we have no idea whether this transformation is one of these exceptions. Plainly, we could only use this law if it had no exceptions whatsoever. This means that the whole point of adopting this law in the first place has now vanished.”13
Working backwards, let me make an obvious point. Marxists do not posit a revolutionary leap from capitalism to socialism/communism on the basis of direct extrapolation from the physical properties of water, iron, chocolate, butter, the speciation of animals in biology or even the historic transition from slavery to feudalism. Capitalism has its own specific, higher laws. Laws, needless to say, which must painstakingly be located through study and the process of abstraction, then theoretically elaborated and integrated back into a concrete whole. Exactly what Marx’s projected books on capital, wage labour, the state and international trade were designed to do (sadly, he only finished the first of four volumes of book one, on capital).
The revolutionary transition to socialism surely will conform to the most general laws of nature, thought and history. Of course; ie, at some point capitalism, through its own inner contradictions, will come to an end and turn into something else - namely its own opposite (that is, unless a catastrophe happens: eg, a global nuclear war or ecological collapse). But, such a broad truth should do nothing to divert us from the necessity of studying in detail the actual movement of capitalism’s essential categories: ie, commodity, money, wage labour, self-expanding value, etc; and the emergence from them of new categories: ie, quasi-money, fictitious capital, limited companies, finance capital, the separation of ownership and control, state intervention, monopoly, imperialism, etc.
Even these categories in and of themselves tell us relatively little about specifics. Socialism, being an act of self-liberation, requires class-wide political consciousness, the organisation of the working class into a democratic centralist party (ie, a mass Communist Party) and at some pivotal moment a careful political calculation of risks and chances of success, when it comes to deciding whether or not to go for taking state power.
An analogy. Understanding the laws of gravity - though probably not Einstein’s refinements - is indispensable when designing a modern commercial passenger aircraft. Eg, knowing the centre of gravity is vital when deciding where to mount the engines. In that sense any resulting aircraft is based on Newtonian physics. But it hardly follows that because the basic laws of gravity have been mastered you have mastered aircraft design (or for that matter learnt how to fly). Designing an aircraft necessitates dedicated teams of experts. Specialists in everything from aerodynamics, aeroelasticity, fly-by-wire and fly-by-optics systems, computer software, composite materials and alloys, communication and situational awareness technology, airport capacities, passenger needs and projections and human psychology.
What about exceptions to general laws - comrade Lichtenstein’s melting metal, glass, plastic, butter, toffee and chocolate? We shall perhaps specifically examine these so-called exceptions on another occasion. Meantime, let us ask ourselves whether exceptions by definition disprove, invalidate and therefore necessarily ‘vanish’ the truth-value of a particular law?
An opening thought. Everyone knows the phrase, ‘The exception proves the rule’. On the face of it evident nonsense. Exceptions disprove the rule. If an exception is proven, at the very least it demands more detailed investigation and certainly shows that the rule (law) in question is not fully accurate and needs some revision. Yet, as I understand it, the phrase was established in English jurisprudence in the early 17th century: Exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis. Interpreted to mean that the ‘exception confirms the rule in the cases not excepted’. In other words a rule exists ... and that is the point.
Lichtenstein’s exceptionalist argument originates with David Hume (1711-76). In his An enquiry concerning human understanding (1772) he well-foundedly questioned the logic of inductive reasoning. One can never tell whether or not a specific observation, no matter how many times repeated, will not at some point down the line hit upon an exception. Eg, we see the sun rising every morning … but does that mean it will necessarily rise tomorrow? No, it does not necessarily follow (though it is a good bet, with odds that basically amount to a dead cert). That being logically the case, however - ie, the sun is not bound to rise tomorrow - Hume concluded that theories were essentially no more that useful human constructs. They were not nearer and nearer approaches to the complexities of the truth. Indeed, we can never know the objective world, he maintained. Observations, including those of science, are only streams of sense impressions. Hence Hume’s scepticism and the space he left open for religion.14
For our part, Marxists consider inductive reasoning partial, one-track, narrow and therefore never fully adequate. As a method it is more than prone to reductionism. The whole is understood through breaking things down into basic units … which are then studied and treated in isolation. But it does not follow that induction should be rejected as worthless … let alone the big scientific theories that have been constructed through inductive reasoning. Eg, Newtonian physics. I note, however, in passing Albert Einstein’s complacency-breaking remarks on sudden flashes of inspiration, or what might be called the role of the emotions, when it comes to initial theorisation. The eureka moment. Leave that undoubtedly correct observation aside - Marxism does not discount inductive reasoning. But neither is it privileged. Nor deductive reason-ing, for that matter.
Marxism is above all concerned with practically changing social totality - the relationship between human beings and nature, between men and women, between dead labour and living labour, between producers and consumers, etc - hence Marxism’s constant stress is the need to unite theory with practice. But that does not imply that Marxism makes any theoretical claims, either to begin with, or at any point, to being a completed system (unlike that of Hegel). Or even suggest that Marxism does not stand in need of substantial development.
Marxism as presently constituted contains many more questions than it can provide fully theorised answers. Moreover, being a world-historic genius of the highest order, Marx’s creative shadow still stretches into our future. Necessary foundations, undiscovered depths, novel starting points, sudden flashes of inspiration are still to be found through close study of Capital, Grundrisse - and even in passing remarks contained in the letters section of the Marx-Engels collected works. As with Newton, Darwin and Einstein, that should only be expected.
But, though they have not yet been equalled, Marx and Engels self-admittedly only laid the groundwork of what they themselves were envisaging. Certainly the three general laws found in Engels’ Dialectics of nature remain to be given systematic content. That much is obvious.
In that sense his three general laws of dialectics are not unlike Newton’s theory of gravity before Einstein and quantum mechanics or Darwinism prior the synthesis with Gregor Mendel’s gene theory and the discovery of DNA coding by James Watson and Francis Crick. Both Newton and Darwin were aware that, while gravitation and natural selection were explanatory, they - that is, their theory - could not provide a verifiable mechanism (a mediating agency). Nevertheless, both Newtonian physics and Darwinism biology worked - especially as prediction in the case of the former - despite the lacunas.
Not surprisingly then, Einstein was full of respect for Newton’s achievement: “We remember how it was in mechanics. By knowing the position and velocity of a particle at one single instant, by knowing the acting forces, the whole future path of the particle could be foreseen …. The subsequent discoveries, in the 19th century, that the universe was not composed only of material bodies but also contained electric and magnetic forces, did not overthrow the determinist view. The new entities were incorporated into a still determinist but now slightly more complex network of causes and effects.”15
According to its own epistemology, dialectical materialism does not claim to reveal any absolute or final truth about nature, history and thought (that being an absolute within the relative). Theory-making, including Marxism, that robustly stands up to the test of criticism and practice is in fact a never-ending process of being and becoming; a process that goes towards giving human beings a closer approximation, a more complete mental image, a stronger hold over objective reality.
Zeno’s dialectical paradox of the flying arrow serves well in this context as a means of illustration. Half by half, then its half, ad infinitum, the path towards the target is constantly being covered. However, the target, the end point - objective reality - is never reached. Reality is infinitely complex, full of contradictions (and is therefore constantly changing). Hence, as an aside, big scientific discoveries are not doomed to peter out. They are bound to keep coming. Depend on that.
What about being unable to use a scientific law because of exceptions? Surely an unfounded assertion. Many scientific laws - most perhaps - implicitly, if not explicitly, are laws of tendency, frequency or probability. Put another way, either they account for or are not phased by exceptions.
Tossing a coin under experimental conditions converges upon a 50-50 head-tail result … if done over a sufficiently long number of times. Yet it is quite possible to get two, three, four, five heads in a row. Does that invalidate the laws of statistical probability?
Another example. Take the famous second law of thermodynamics: ie, in an isolated system, a process can occur only if it increases the total entropy of the system. Nonetheless, call it what you will, there are exceptions, partialities or needed corrections. In isentropic processes no change does seem to take place without any overt increase or decrease in entropy.16 Should we conclude that the second law of thermodynamics has no truth-value and should therefore be rejected? Hardly.
Ditto with the exceptions to other scientific laws. Darwin’s theory of natural selection is explicitly premised on gradualism and the absence of sudden catastrophes. Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge have convincingly shown that this is far from the case. There are sudden leaps (speciation) and mass extinctions (eg, the end of the dinosaurs). Yet, as Gould himself is at pains to emphasise, that does not mean Darwinism as a paradigm ought to be rejected.17
The list could go on and on. But there is no need. Plainly, we are not categorically obliged to reject a scientific law merely because we discover a single exception, or even a whole raft of exceptions. The fact of the matter is that scientific laws survive to the extent that they hold up and therefore to the extent that they are true. Put in rather more modest terms, scientific laws survive while they remain usefully incorporated within the dominant paradigm.
Crucially, however, no scientific theory, including the most general, should be conceived as being absolute. The truth discovered or revealed by theory is always relative. Comrade Lichtenstein’s whole point of rejecting dialectics in this respect “has now vanished”.
1. F Fukuyama Democracy, power and the neoconservative legacy Yale 2006.
2. Martin Wolf in Financial Times February 19.
3. Weekly Worker September 13 2007.
4. See homepage.ntlworld.com/rosa.l
5. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialectical_materialism - accessed February 4.
6. K Marx Capital Vol 1, Moscow 1970, p20.
7. Ibid p19.
9. See T Smith The logic of Marx’s ‘Capital’ New York, 1990.
10. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 25, London 1987, p357 - emphasis added by Lichtenstein.
11. Quoted in Weekly Worker September 13 2007. I have been unable to locate this exact passage, but it is apparently taken from The development of the monist view of history.
12. Weekly Worker September 13 2007.
14. See 18th.eserver.org/hume-enquiry.html
15. A Einstein and L Infeld The evolution of physics Cambridge 1961, p146.
16. See www.answers.com/topic/isentropic-flow?cat=technolog
17. See SJ Gould The structure of evolutionary theory Cambridge Mass, 2002.